Wednesday, March 9, 2022

A Few Notes on the War in Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers are great diggers. People have observed that the front line between government-held territory and that of Russian-allied separatists looks like a trench zone from World War I. Glimpses I have seen of positions from this war also feature lots of deep digging. Russian attempts to overrun these positions with armored assaults have mostly failed, presumably because the defenders are well-equipped with modern anti-tank weapons. But then anyone who ever played an SPI board game could have told them that you can't take entrenchments with armor.

Terrain matters in war, which is why the Russians are doing much better in the south than the north. Northern Ukraine is forested and marshy, and in the spring vehicles are limited to improved roads. Since Russian attacks can't break through Ukrainian positions, they pile up into 40-mile traffic jams. Their supply columns have to move through dense forest perfect for ambush. In the south the country is drier and more open, and the Russians have been able to bypass entrenched positions with rapid armored movements. Ukrainians seem less bold under the open sky, even though Russia has not yet made much use of its air force.

It remains very hard to get a sense of how the war is going. The Russians have committed the force they assembled for this war and have no more operational reserves, but have not won. Does that mean they are on the ropes? Or just that they will need time to bring up more forces? Have they been stopped militarily, or are they just out of gas? They have brought in mercenaries from the Wagner Group and are seeking recruits in Syria; does that mean they are desperate for troops, or just that they want to limit Russian losses for domestic political reasons? How bad a sign is it that Ukraine has taken many prisoners, they claim more than 2,000? I mean, the Germans took a lot of Russian prisoners, too. The Russians have lost at least 150 tanks and 300 other armored vehicles; this is a small part of their overall armory, but given what we have learned about shoddy maintenance etc. how many of their other tanks are really ready to fight? A military train was spotted headed for Belarus with a cargo of civilian trucks, presumably because they are running out of military trucks. Is that desperation? People on Twitter are laughing about it, but I suspect they would feel very differently if the Ukrainians were pressing civilian trucks into battlefield use.

Ukraine has been very successful in exposing Russian problems while hiding their own, so we have no sense of how close Ukrainian forces who have been fighting for two weeks might be to cracking. There are hints that they are holding back substantial reserves (for example, none of the tanks their reserve regiments use have yet showed up in lists of destroyed equipment). But maybe that is another clever ruse. Some of the things they have not done worry me. For example, they have not sunk any of the Russian ships floating within missile range of Odessa. In fact the only successful missile strike I know of is one on a fuel depot in Belarus. Given that they are supposed to have hundreds of missiles, what's the deal? Why are they yelling so loudly for a no-fly zone when so far as I can tell the Russian air force is barely active? Seems like a fearful thing to be doing.

One group that seems to have a lot of confidence in Ukraine is the Pentagon. Their spokesmen are verging on gleeful, perhaps remembering Napoleon's famous adage, "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake." You have to think that NATO would not have given effectively their entire ready store of anti-tank missiles to Ukraine if they expected Ukraine would be quickly overrun. They see a chance to wreck the Russian army and are seizing it.

Ukrainian resolve has been amazing, and there seems to be no way the Russians could conquer and rule this country. Various talking heads have said, "This will be a 15-year war." I doubt it; I think some kind of negotiated settlement will have to be reached. The only question is who will have the upper hand on the battlefield and therefore the upper hand in negotiations. Right now both sides are talking tough, which means the fighting will go on.

Russia is in a terrible place, politically, morally, economically, and that is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Meanwhile in the West, a big group of conservative and moderate commentators are welcoming the war. They are all saying some version of, "Now here is a real moral crisis, so shut up about micro-aggressions and trans rights and let's focus on defending freedom against tyranny." This is the fight they want. This is also the fight that thousands of ex-soldiers who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan want, and they are on their way to Ukraine to put their killing skills to use in a cause they can believe in.

The risk that the war will spread is real. NATO is giving Ukraine all kinds of support, including near real-time intelligence from AWACS planes flying just over Ukraine's borders. According to a story I read yesterday, 16,000 westerners have volunteered to fight in Ukraine, and the first are already in the trenches. A lot of Russians are being killed with NATO weapons flooding over the border, and the simplest way to reduce that flow would be to bomb the border crossings. In a deeper sense I feel the worry that Yuval Levin expressed in the video I linked to yesterday, that this is the dawn of a new era of war. Between the weapons, the blown-up buildings, the lost and maimed lives, and the financial wreckage, it has surely cost the world hundreds of billions already, and we may just be getting started. People say "Putin is finished," but it looks to me like millions of Z-wearing neo-fascists are loving this fight. The world is going to be a poorer, darker place, perhaps for decades.


G. Verloren said...

A military train was spotted headed for Belarus with a cargo of civilian trucks, presumably because they are running out of military trucks. Is that desperation? People on Twitter are laughing about it, but I suspect they would feel very differently if the Ukrainians were pressing civilian trucks into battlefield use.

I mean... Ukraine is the underdog, so obviously people would feel differently.

When a bully and a braggart over-confidently picks a fight and then ends up having to resort to desperate measures to try to win that fight, people rightly mock them. Whereas if the bully's underdog victim resorts to desperate measures, no one mocks that, because of course the underdog needs every advantage they can get to help make the fight more even.

People laugh at Russia's failings because Russia has arrogantly boasted of how formidable they are - and then tried to use that supposed formidability to achieve evil ends. Of course people laugh at an abuser being shown up by their intended victim. It's funny when Goliath is given a black eye by a scrawny boy with a sling.

G. Verloren said...

In a deeper sense I feel the worry that Yuval Levin expressed in the video I linked to yesterday, that this is the dawn of a new era of war.

Oh, come off it. "A new era of war"? As if we didn't just spend the last two decades in a constant state of war ourselves?

How is this "a new era of war" when Russia invaded and occupied Crimea only 8 years ago? And invaded Georgia only 6 years before that? And invaded Chechnya only 8 years before that? The Russians have been more or less continuously at war since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Russian Federation!

It's just that we in the West haven't cared about most of Russia's wars, since they were with countries or minority groups we don't really care about. Transnistria? Tajikistan? Dagestan? Abkhazia? South Ossetia? Donetsk? Luhansk? Most Americans have never even heard about these places nor can find them on a map, much less care about Russia going to war with them - and odds are good many of our European counterparts aren't much better about the matter either.

Besides - a fair amount of the time, Russia's opponents were Muslims, making people even less inclined to care what Russia was doing to them (as disgusting as that is). We sometimes talk in the media about the problems posed by Assad's Syria, but the fact that he is being propped up by Russia often goes unmentioned and swept under the rug. And when was the last time you heard anything at all in the news about the ongoing conflict in the CAR, much less about Russia's involvement there?

No, this isn't "a new era of war" - this is a new era of complacent Westerners being unable to conveniently ignore war.

This is just yet another in a long line of Russian acts of naked aggression - only this time they misjudged the strength of their intended victim, and this time the Western world couldn't help but take notice due to Russia's absurd blatancy.

John said...

@G- If you want to argue that Russia has been on a war footing for decades, I might buy that. I absolutely think the Middle East has been in an "era of war," which might have begun with the overthrow of the Shah, or maybe with the US invasion of Iraq.

The thing about Russia's wars to date is that they did not inspire much of a reaction in the West, so trade has gone on, elite circles in London and Paris have been enriched with Russian cash, Russian gas and oil have kept energy prices down. Everybody has been profiting. European countries have refused to raise their defense budgets. I call this an era of peace.

What Levin is saying is that the things that have made us richer -- open borders, capital flows, low defense spending -- may be disappearing. Every dollar spent on missiles is one less spent on health care. I have following a lot of military guys during the war and they want a doubling of US military spending at least.

In Asia, Korea, Japan and Taiwan have been a little worried about China but not so worried as to back off the trade and specialization that is making all of them rich. If they start seriously planning for war with China, the economic costs will be dire.

I know there is a lot of violence in the world. But that doesn't mean it can't get a whole lot worse.

G. Verloren said...


A doubling of US military spending would be lunacy. We already have the most bloated military on the planet, with a budget that ludicrously dwarfs any other nation's, and it doesn't really achieve us anything of value.

Honestly ask yourself - what would spending $1.5 annually on warfare gain us, except further impoverishment and neglect of our vital social services?

One might think we'd use the increased military budget to exert greater influence over other countries - but a military is only valuable if you use it, and we're already in a position where we are wholly unwilling to commit our forces against anyone other than small nations with small and out-of-date militaries, like Iraq and Afghanistan. And we can't even win wars against them!

What would spending an addition $750 billion a year on bullets and bombs actually get us? We still wouldn't be willing to go to war with Russia or China, since we're terrified of escalation into nuclear war. We still wouldn't be able to win fundamentally unwinnable wars like in Iraq and Afghanistan, where there are no achievable objectives other than endless and pointless occupation followed by inevitable withdrawal. We'd have an even more bloated military that is still just as worthless in terms of actually providing us any kind of value. What's the point?

If the recommendation was to spend an additional $750 billion a year on rebuilding the places where we start wars (in order to install actual functioning government and social institutions in order to provide stability), I still wouldn't agree with the idea, but I could at least see the logic of it. But what possible benefit is there to just doubling our already absurd military budget? What meaningful return on investment does it offer? Because I can't see any kind of return at all - just a colossal waste of resources that could instead be spent on our already underfunded domestic services.

Meanwhile, that very "era of peace" you mention, with European countries refusing to raise their military budgets? That itself has now become a weapon in times of need - the very prosperity produced by NOT overspending on military matters is now making it possible to weather the costs of destroying the Russian economy with crippling sanctions - ones which the Russians would be far better able to endure if they didn't spend so much of their own limited budget on warfare, and which they wouldn't even be facing if they weren't so senselessly belligerent!

It's the height of irony to suggest that Europeans have been wrong not to spend more on defense, when having done so would only have made them even MORE dependent on Russian oil, and far less able to afford sanctions as opposed to outright war.

And we in America really ought to consider exactly that same thing. If we were actually to double our military spending, how would we go about fueling all the extra planes, ships, etc? And who, exactly, would we strengthen financially by buying all that extra oil from them? Think how much more beholden we would be to countries like Russia, Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, the UAE, etc.

What good is a military that's twice as expensive if it makes us twice as dependent on oil from our geopolitical rivals, and thus less willing to defy them when they engage in nefarious acts? And what good is doubling military budgets if it means further slashing our already insufficient infrastructure and institutional budgets? Did we learn absolutely nothing from the collapse of the Soviet Union?

G. Verloren said...

typo - "...what would spending $1.5 trillion annually..."

szopen said...

"It's the height of irony to suggest that Europeans have been wrong not to spend more on defense, when having done so would only have made them even MORE dependent on Russian oil, and far less able to afford sanctions as opposed to outright war."

Western European NATO countries have the luxury of being able to impose sanctions on RUssia only because of US military umbrella.

G. Verloren said...


Oh, please.

The United States definitely contributes a rather outsized amount to NATO, but the bulk of NATO's power is wholly and indisputably European, and that power itself dwarfs that of Russia even without American contribution. That reality is simply inescapable when you've got so many countries contributing to their own mutual defense.

You also seem to be implying that America's contributions to NATO are being made on behalf of other nations, which is totally wrong. America chooses to maintain an absurdly expensive military for its own geopolitical ends - not for those of NATO. America pays a premium in order to have a military that it can send out to meddle in the affairs of other countries for the sake of American profit - whereas NATO is wholly defensive, focused entirely on streamlining communications, coordination, and logistics between members as a way to make their existing forces more efficient and effective.

If the United States spent a more reasonable amount on military funding (say... half of what it currently spends, which would still make it the most expensive military on the planet by a wide margin), NATO would still be an absolute juggernaut more than capable of taking on the Russians militarily. Yet if the European countries chose to double their military spending, they'd suddenly have a much harder time imposing sanctions on Russia simply due to the economic costs - particularly given how dependent they would then be on Russian oil to FUEL their extra military forces.

And honestly? European countries know that they get far greater returns from supporting diplomacy and trade, rather than stockpiling weapons and fomenting militancy. They maintain NATO specifically as a way to reduce the need for spending more on the military. That's the entire point of NATO existing - it allows member states to rely on their neighbors through the safety of mutual defense, rather than forcing every single country to devote massive amounts of resources to maintaining their own independent forces for the sake of deterrence.

szopen said...

@Verloren My country at least tries to get to the military spending limits (2.2% of our GDP in 2020 compared to 1.4% of Germany). Germans instead were colluding with Russians, accusing us of being Russophobes, while their former chancellor was getting nice and cozy position in Russian company. If they would listen to us when we argued that nord stream is weakening Ukraine and increasing European dependency on Russia, then maybe Ukraine invasion now would not happen.